Wednesday, January 22, 2014

'Evolve But Never Change': A review of "Still Disturbed" by Ward 21

Being yourself. Although it is certain that music is an art form, like all others, which is inherently based on some level of experimentation and finding out what works for you and what doesn't, sometimes it just isn't necessary to take certain musical risks . For some, such as Busy Signal or Perfect Giddimani, trying out different styles is what helps to make them who they are. If Busy suddenly could no longer find the attraction in singing Phil Collins songs or making tracks where 99% of the words in the song begin with same letter and Perfect just stopped… yelling on songs for absolutely no reason at all, then they become someone else. On the other hand, kind of, would be someone like Elephant Man. Ele has to make dance songs. That's what he's here for! The songs will sound different, of course, but you have to be able to dance to most of them and no matter how ridiculous they may be (and they are), even if you are not a fan, you know you'd miss Elephant Man if he crossed over and started making purely Roots Reggae music. If Jah Cure turned into a DJ, it'd be just as big of a loss as the greatest voice any human being has ever had will be stolen from us. Every tune from Mad Cobra has to have at least one casualty. Lady Saw has to say something dirty. And don't even get me started on Soca. And what makes all of them special is that they're able to make such a great variation and range in their output so that despite the fact that they may make hundreds of songs in the same style, they all rarely, if ever, directly sound like something else from the vault - unless it's intentional. And today we're dealing with ranges and big, wide open spaces as someone else who has very much chipped out their own place in the music returns with a brand new release. If you have followed Ward 21 throughout the years and have actually been a fan then you know their contribution to Reggae and, specifically, Dancehall music over the past decade and a half or so has been immeasurable. Besides making music of their own, they've also helmed some of the biggest hits since the turn of the century, including the immortal Bellyas Riddim and many, many others. But when it comes to their own actual output, the Ward has spent their career making some of the MADDEST vibes the Dancehall has ever seen.  
"Mentally Disturbed" [2001]
And if it ain't broke… Everyone doesn't have to mature and grow up and crossover in ways in which make their sound so much different. Sometimes your maturation, as a musician, can just make you stronger at what it is that you do best and that seems to be the direction that Ward 21 has gone in. These days, a little 'slimmer' than when they began, they still pursue their arts with a level of 'colourful edginess' which may not have an equal in Dancehall music - and that is saying A LOT! 

It has not only carried them through many great tunes, but it's also made for some really big albums as well. Most recently was 2009's decent "Genesis" set which hasn't withstood the test of time as well as their first two albums, 2001's "Mentally Disturbed" and "U Know How We Roll" from two years later, respectively. Both of those albums came via the once mighty Greensleeves Records and were two of the best modern Dancehall albums of all time in my opinion. They were crazy rides of adrenaline throughout and, these days, neither have lost any bit of steam more than a decade following their release dates. After leaving Greensleeves on less than amicable terms, the Ward released their next album, the 'less than' great "King Of The World" on a Japanese imprint and the aforementioned "Genesis" was done for DHF Records. Their latest creation comes via a most welcomed and familiar source, however, and one who has shown a very strong interest in the group, the very formidable and just refreshing Germaica Digital. Germaica is interesting (in all of forty-thousand different forms), immediately, because you won't find very many labels outside of Jamaica and definitely not many in Europe which SPECIALIZE in Dancehall music (and the only other one coming to my mind is Weedy G Soundforce). At one point there seemed to be new European labels popping up weekly (most of them, curiously enough, from out France) and they all dealt with Roots Reggae music. And you can do it yourself -- think of some of the big labels -- IrieVibrations, Irie Ites, Oneness Records, JahSolidRock: While they may mix in a bit of Dancehall, it definitely speaks to the popularity of Roots music that ALL of them deal with that genre far more often than Dancehall. So that is a trait which intrinsically separates Germaica and makes them interesting. Of course it does help that they do it well and, as I said, they've found favourites in Ward 21 who has routinely appeared on releases from the label in recent years. But now, together, they take a delightful next step in "Still Disturbed". I was very happy when I initially got the news of this albums forthcoming and not only because it would be the first Ward 21 album in five years (although that definitely was part of it), but also because of its title. "Still Disturbed" is a destroyer of any illusions that something in the way of 'experimentation' is going on here. That title heads back full thirteen years ago (when I was NINETEEN… damn!) to the "Mentally Disturbed” album and, essentially, says that nothing has changed. You can expect the same madness. Also, with the increasing rarity of albums from top flight Dancehall talents, "Still Disturbed" adds to the star power of early 2014 releases from the subgenre which also includes "True Colors" by Wayne Marshall and will shortly include "Full Frequency" by Sean Paul (more on him in a second). We know what to expect from Sean Paul (we just hope that it sounds better than it did on his last two albums) and the fact that we don't from Marshall is part of the attraction in that case, but surely five years in between albums has made for a more toned down, relaxed and mature sound from Ward 21, right? 
'Mic Magician' single [2013]
Thankfully that is inaccurate and incorrect. Not only does Germaica mainly deal with Dancehall music, but specifically they focus on a more old school centric blend of the style which, when placed in the hands of the wholly modern Ward 21 (who are disciples of King Jammy's) makes for a very compelling mix and, ultimately, one of the better Dancehall albums in recent years in my opinion. Starting things on "Still Disturbed" is an intro which sets the tone for what is to follow. It builds continuously throughout with the group running through its history including mentioning some of their biggest hits and riddims and just when it reaches its peak - it sends us to track #2, 'War Start'. Backing this battle is an infectious mix of the immortal Stagalag Riddim. The song is a heavy one, but the Ward does sound like this and, unlike coming from someone like a Bounty Killer or an Aidonia, it does have movement. It's not as rigid and despite its nature, it's still a very fun track with dynamite lyrics.

"Gunman ting a nuh pickney sinting
Coppa bullet off yuh chest, a nuh stone ah fling thing
Off yuh body it ah dance to a tune pon Sleng Teng
John Crow gone wid yuh crown, yuh lose yuh king bling"

Next is a very fun and familiar tune which was one of the early singles from the album, 'Mic Magician'. The tune links Ward 21 with the talented Marcy Chin as well as their very own artist, DeeWunn. Again, the track is another colourful old school selection which is damn fun to listen to. Chin later returns for the KNOCKING 'Wife Versus Mate'. This song has its funny moments and it is a big tune as well as those ahead of it. Through "Still Disturbed" Ward 21 also taps a couple of really big names to work with alongside up and comers Chin and DeeWunn. The first of these is the aforementioned Sean Paul who joins in on 'Ben U Back', while Konshens later comes through on 'Out'. The former is pretty much anything that you'd imagine from such a combination and I'll give a big credit here because, even on paper, the idea of a Ward 21/Sean Paul link is delicious. As for 'Out', it rises to the near top of this album. The riddim on that song is RIDICULOUS! It is a beautiful piece of crazy art and Ward 21 and Konshens abuse it!

"Claim seh she pretty, but she ugly like a gator
And she face holy holy just like a crater
And her pop dung, pass dat fi later
Dem no genuine leather, dem a old faker
She bun up hard-drive and crash all data
Suck weh every energy outta di generator
She love beg and borrow, nuttin she no pay for
She ah style gal a road and she no greater"

"Still Disturbed" offers up some truly intoxicating moments and, unfortunately, I have to think entirely too hard to come up with its equal in a pure Dancehall album. A nice example of this would be a trio of offerings right in the middle of the album which don't even approach being the best that it has to offer, but all three are some kind of sensational. 'Clappin U Back', 'Cut Inna Face' and 'U Shouldn't', are all really good, somewhat violent, selections. The first two are the best of the lot with 'Clappin U Back' nearing vintage level Ward 21 in my opinion and 'Cut Inna Face' definitely has its moments. 'U Shouldn't', on the other hand, took a minute to grow on me because it is a little awkward at times (particularly at the chorus), but it pulls itself together fairly quickly and firmly by its end ["Gwan tek wi likely. Inna yuh life, you never pree nuttin like wi"]. Also registering in similar way would be 'Herbs Man' and album closer, 'We A Danger' - both of which mine classics and utilize the Hot Milk and Far East riddims, respectively. The former is preceded by a hilarious skit where a man calls for emergency to report that he's been robbed of his herbs, only to have it pointed out to him by the operator that maybe he smoked all of it himself. Still, 'We A Danger' is clearly the best of the two and is simply not to be missed. There is also the very clever 'Puncie' which is reminiscent of General Degree's 'Pianist' and Lady Saw's 'Life Without Dick' and though it is far from being the best song on this album, is hilarious and a big tune.

'Spot The J'

What is the biggest tune on this album? That's a horrible question! The press-release that I read for this album (or whatever that was) mentioned that 'Spot the J' had attracted much of the early attention and buzz for "Still Disturbed" and with good reason: It is MAMMOTH! The tune ranks alongside others such as the afore-alluded to 'The Letter P' from Busy Signal and Beenie Man's 'Reverse Di Ting' as one of the most lyrically inventive Dancehall tunes that I've heard in more recent years and it comes from the same group which gave us the now classic 'Rhyme’, one of the best written Dancehall tunes that I've ever heard. The song places a bow on the album and it, alone, could have made this one a good record, but thankfully it has a great deal of help. Still, after listening to it, I can't help but to say - fuck this album. Fuck everyone who buys it. Fuck you if you don't buy it. And fuck this review because I'm tired of writing it - but I'm almost done. So fuck the finish too! 
Ward 21
Overall, DEFINITELY giving a big recommendation to Dancehall heads for "Still Disturbed". To my opinion, while I cannot call it as good as "Mentally Disturbed" or "U Know How We Roll", it is in that class and it is far better than "Genesis" (which was good) and definitely "King of The World" (which was not). I do love the kind of mix they have here and, just thinking, unless Ward 21 produces their own album (which is certainly a possibility for them) (although I'd appreciate them rolling out a one for Timberlee now) I don't know that the current landscape allows for them to make an album THIS good anymore with how… rotten and bastardized Dancehall music has become. So definitely biggup Germaica who allows Suku, Kunley and Mean Dog to continue to thrill fans with a style which has become one of a kind and does not need any type of tweaking or experimenting after all of these years. On "Still Disturbed", Ward 21 turns in another big album and, once again, proves that you never really have to change something if what you do is so damn good. Undoubtedly the most fun and probably the best pure Dancehall album I've heard in awhile.

Rated: 4.65/5
Germaica Digital
CD [February 7] + Digital

Review #489


  1. Awesome!!! Was wondering if these guys would ever make another album.

  2. Got confirmation from the group via Facebook - CD and vinyl coming Feb 7th.

  3. Fantastic - Thanks Dale Cooper!